John Prine, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 73

john prine
Courtesy of Danny Clinch

John Prine, who established himself as one of America’s deftest and most affecting singer-songwriters over the course of a nearly 50-year career, died Tuesday of complications of coronavirus. He was 73.

His publicist confirmed his death on behalf of his family. Prine had been in the hospital for several weeks, and it was announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 17. HIs wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, had been diagnosed with the virus earlier, but she had recovered and was involved in sending out social media updates about her husband’s condition, which she acknowledged was critical.

Prine had been in the limelight more than ever in recent years, as he became a hero to younger singer-songwriters and resumed his recording career after a long layoff with 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his first album in 13 years.

He was named a recipient of a lifetime achievement Grammy in December, and was acknowledged at the January ceremony as Bonnie Raitt serenaded him with “Angel from Montgomery,” a signature song that she first recorded in 1974. “My friend and hero John Prine, who’s sitting right over there, wrote ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and so many other songs that changed my life,” Raitt said on the telecast as he smiled.

Prine had been an active touring artist in recent years, and performed his final Los Angeles area concert Oct. 1, where he sang his own version of “Angel,” among other classics. He returned to L.A. and participated in a salute to Willie Nelson sponsored by the Americana Music Association at the Troubadour the night before the Grammys. (See videos from both recent appearances, below.)

Prine was never a huge seller: The top-charting record of his early career, 1975’s “Common Sense,” peaked at No. 66, and he did not reach the American top 10 until 2018. But he was universally recognized by his peers as a gifted and distinctive songsmith who put his numbers across in a furry drawl that mated rich homespun humor, sharp narrative detail and deep warmth and poignancy.

He burst out of the Chicago folk music scene, where he played club shows while he worked by day as a mail carrier, in the early ‘70s. He received his first major break when Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert walked out of a movie screening and stumbled upon Prine’s set at the local club the Fifth Peg.

“Somebody told him to go in the backroom and listen to this kid,” Prine recalled on NPR in 2018. “I was the kid. And he wrote a full page – ‘Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,’ I think that was the headline…and I never had an empty seat after that.”

His greatest stroke of good fortune came after Prine’s close friend and Chicago folk music contemporary Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson, whose Quiet Knight shows Goodman was opening, to an impromptu late-night performance at another local club. Impressed, Kristofferson later called Prine on stage for three songs at a date at New York’s Bitter End. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler offered Prine a contract the next day.

“It really was a Cinderella story, truly,” Prine told Billboard in 2017.

The musician moved to the head of his class in 1971 with his self-titled Atlantic debut album. The collection, which melded strains of folk and country with a few contemporary rock brush strokes, featured a brace of instantly classic original songs that ranged from the droll pot smoker’s anthem “Illegal Smile” to the powerful “Sam Stone,” a powerful portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam vet.

Those songs, and such oft-covered early numbers as “Angel From Montgomery” and the autobiographical “Paradise,” about his family’s days in the Kentucky coal country, tagged Prine as the standout in a then-growing field of singer-songwriters who were lumped together as the potential “new Bob Dylans.”

After eight well-received major label albums for Atlantic and Asylum, including sets produced by his friend Goodman, Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs and (on a couple of tracks for 1979’s “Pink Cadillac”) Sam Phillips of Sun Records, Prine stepped away from recording for four years to reconsider his career.

In 1984, he took complete control of his music and founded his own independent label, Oh Boy Records, in partnership with his longtime manager Al Bunetta; he would release his work on the imprint for the remainder of his career. (Bunetta died in 2015 after more than 40 years with his client.)

His work of the ‘90s included “The Missing Years” (1991), winner of the best contemporary folk album Grammy, and “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings” (1995), two punchy albums produced by Tom Petty’s bassist Howie Epstein and featuring backing by members of Petty’s group the Heartbreakers.

In later years, a series of health crises slowed Prine’s creative output. In 1996 he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his neck. He also endured lung cancer surgery in 2013, and was forced to cancel tour dates when tests indicated he needed an operation to forestall a potential stroke.

Despite these challenges, Prine continued to pen rewarding songs (often in collaboration with such writers as Gary Nicholson, Pat Mclaughlin and Keith Sykes). He returned to recording in 1999 with “In Spite of Ourselves,” the first of two duets collections that featured his favorite singing partner Iris DeMent and other top female performers, covering the classic country repertoire. He collected a second folk album Grammy for 2005’s “Fair & Square.”

He reached his late-career peaks with 2016’s divorce-themed duets sequel “For Better, or Worse” (No. 30 on the U.S. album chart) and 2018’s solo set “The Tree of Forgiveness” (No. 5). The latter album, his first set of new original songs in 13 years, found Prine produced by Dave Cobb and supported by such young Americana stars as Brandi Carlisle, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.

Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

He was born in Maywood, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, on Oct. 10, 1946. He was taught to play guitar by his older brother Dave, who would support him on his early records. Prine numbered Doc Watson, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash among his early influences. His professional music career was forestalled when he was drafted into the Army in 1966; he was stationed in West Germany during the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Returning to the Chicago area, Prine returned to a postal route in Maywood, and fell in with an active local scene that centered around the Old Town School of Folk Music, a hub where such performers as Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and Fred Holstein developed their reputations. He was a much-admired performer by the time his breaks came via the attention from Ebert and Kristofferson.

Following ‘71’s “John Prine,” widely viewed as one of the strongest collections of original folk material since “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” his varied output included the spare sophomore set “Diamonds in the Rough” (1972), which took its title from a Carter Family hymn; the rocking Cropper-produced “Common Sense” (1975); the Goodman-helmed “Bruised Orange” (1978); and “Pink Cadillac,” a rockabilly-inflected set cut at Memphis’ Sam Phillips Recording with Phillips’ sons Jerry and Knox.

Prine bailed out on the majors for good after 1980’s “Storm Windows” ended his three-album tenure at Asylum. His first two albums for Nashville-based Oh Boy were relaxed affairs, but the musician hit his creative stride again in his collaborations with Epstein and his Petty bandmates. His Grammy win for “The Missing Years” essentially began his late-career veneration, which he somewhat typically looked at self-effacingly.

He told David Fricke in the liner notes of the 1993 career retrospective “Great Days,” “The best thing about [the Grammy], though, came afterwards, It was like everybody who’s supported me down the years, came to the shows and all, they all flet like they had won a Grammy too. I would tell that they were really proud too. Kind of like ‘We did it.’ It was a great thing to watch.”

In spite of a multitude of health setbacks later in life, Prine always maintained the sense of humor that characterized much of his best work, even in a number about his own mortality. In 2018’s “When I Get to Heaven,” a comic song that concluded “The Tree of Forgiveness,” he promised that in the afterlife, “the old man is going to town.”

Prine is survived by his third wife Fiona Whelan and their sons Tommy and Jack.